“The Light in the Piazza” – October 14, 2015

A little emotion goes a long way. And music is one of the best communicators of emotion, as Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Billy Joel can tell you.

The richer the music, the deeper the emotional response to it.

Which is why emotions combined with music can be so powerful, and so dangerous. When 2005’s The Light in the Piazza first materialized on Broadway, there was much talk that the show—a musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel—marked a return to the kind of gorgeous scores and lyrical drama that fueled the golden age of Broadway. Ignoring decades of rock and pop influences on Broadway, composer Adam Guettel created a score that was lush, orchestral, complex, operatic and deeply, brazenly romantic.
Some people hated it. After years of easy, amiable, non-challenging throwaway tunes, ‘The Light in the Piazza’ just sounded so . . . old fashioned. Because of that, others fell in love with it.
Like music, and definitely like love itself, its all a matter of taste.

In a remarkably strong new production at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, director Gene Abravaya—taking a real risk in tackling something this difficult—has more than met the challenge, assembling a cast of first-rate singers and a stellar chamber orchestra, for what is quite possibly the most beautiful, satisfying, musically competent, and artistically successful show Spreckels Theater Company has ever staged.

And that some of the cast sings and speaks (convincingly) in Italian, that only adds to the impressiveness of the achievement.

Whether all of this is excellence and musical skill is enough to draw an audience remains to be seen, though positive word-of-mouth will certainly help. Based on a book few have read, this is no Mary Poppins. But for audiences loudly clamoring to see something that dares to venture beyond the confortable familiarity of the same old overdone standard musicals, here is your chance to prove it.

Set in Italy in the 1950s, the story follows two visiting Americans, the wealthy southerner Margaret—brilliantly played by Eileen Morris—and her wide-eyed daughter Clara—played by Jennifer Mitchell, whose pure singing voice and expressive face make every emotion and discovery as clear as a bell. When Clara falls in love, at first sight, with the youthful and exuberant Frabrizio—Jacob Bronson—the stage is a set for a series of clashes between Margaret and Fabrizio, between Margaret and Clara, and between Margaret’s own desire to protect her daughter, and to also allow her the love she never has the courage to claim for herself.

The clever, entertaining book by Craig Lucas—who wrote Prelude to a Kiss and Amélie: The Musical—does include scenes spoken in Italian, giving a sense of the lost-in-translation confusion that impedes Clara and Fabrizio at every turn. In one delightful scene in the second act, Fabrizio’s mother—Barbara McFadden, who’s wonderful—drops the Italian to explain in English what her husband—an excellent Steven Kent Barker—has been saying to their other son and his wife—played respectively by Tariq Malik and Amy Marie Webber.

That said, the Italian sequences are so well staged, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

With some fine design and technical support, and a strong ensemble cast, Spreckels’ Light in the Piazza is a truly impressive show, dripping with music and the dangers and allure of love—and that’s worth experiencing in any language.

‘The Light in the Piazza’ runs Friday–Sunday through Oct. 25 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Spreckels online.com

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